What is the origin of “in a jiffy”?

What is the origin of “in a jiffy”?

Etymology online Dictionary says origin unknown but speculates that it was slang (cant) for lightning and dates it as 1785.

Wikipedia agrees but adds that the American physical chemist, Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875–1946) was the first to actually specify how long a jiffy was, a mere 33.3564 picoseconds. Nowadays a jiffy is the delay interval between one computer animation frame and another, particularly in Autodesk Animator, it being defined as 1/100th-of-a-second (10 ms) jiffies (if I’ve understood that part correctly).

Grammarphobia mentions the OED entry and goes on to say

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the word might
have been “spontaneously coined” by Raspe, a German librarian, writer,
and scientist.

The earliest recorded use of “in a jiffy” I found is dated 1780 from The Town and Country Magazine, Or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction and Entertainment.

"in a jiffy" snippet

This was pure luck, a serendipitous moment, I had been looking for variations of the idiom twist someone around one’s finger when I saw “in a jiffy” being used in conjunction with the metaphor. In fact, if one types “jiffy” in the search box, Google informs “there are no results for jiffy in this book” but I found two instances!

Most of the limbs of law do everything in a jiffy; but ask what they mean, and they would be as much puzzled, as if you required of them the explanation of a common act of parliament. If such gibberish were confined to hackney clerks of twelve shillings a week, we should not notice it, as we should scarce ever have our ears grated with it; but the misfortune is, by degrees it has found its way into more polite assemblies, and a lady of taste was heard to say the other evening at the Pantheon, that she could turn Sir William B_____ round her finger in a jiffy.
If people of sense or common understanding, would reflect one moment
on the folly of using words and phrases they could not explain, they
would certainly explode them, and shun those who used them, as being afflicted with a verbal contagion, …

As fascinating this felicitous episode may be, it didn’t explain the origins of this expression.


jeffy

A spelling variation in Francis Grose’s book, Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796)

It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time,
in an instant.


updated: 17 December 2017

in a jiffey

In The Newcastle Jester; being a choice collection of Entertaining Jests, Humourous Tales, Droll Stories, Lively Puns, &c (1804) We have:

Two Irishmen fishing one day in the Liffey,
Which runs close by Dublin’s great city so fine,
A smart show’r of rain falling, Pat, in a jiffey,
Crept under the arch of Queen’s-bridge with his line.
“Arrah, that’s not the way to accomplish your wishes,”
Cries Dermot,—” there devil a bite will you get.”
“Ogh! bother,” says Pat, “don’t you know that the fishes
Will creep under here, to keep out of the wet!”

There are other instances where the alliteration Liffey (the river that flows across Dublin; Ireland) and jiffey are repeated. In a song entitled, Master Rooney of Ballinafad’s Travels and Voyage, dated 1807, we have the following example:

song snippet


giffy

Another spelling variant was giffy I found several instances of this word in Google books but none told me their origins.

  • 1822 (London); “he saw Mary walking along the road we a strange man, […] that Mary fell in a fit and the man attempted first to help her, but that William sent him flying over the hedge in a giffy, and threatened Mary,…”
  • 1833 (Middlebury College, Vermont); “Done, and O the philosophers scales effected nothing half so wonderful! The seven were raised in a giffy, and we verily concluded it would take five more to restore the equilibrium.”
  • 1833 (New York); Giffy, a rapid and brief space of time.
  • 1866 (Lincolnshire); Giffy.—Immediately. Ex. I’ll be with you in a giffy. Giffling.—Moving about impatiently

in a jiffing

The expression, in a jiffing was apparently well-known in the USA. In Dictionary of Americanisms By John Russell Bartlett (1859). The term To rights is defined as Directly; soon and by the expression in a jiffing.

In a jiffing was also used by Dickens in his All the Year Round, Volumes 15-16 dated 1866.


jiffle

I found the following excerpt in The Dictionary of English Etymology E – P, Volume 2 By Hensleigh Wedgwood (1862)

It appears that a jif and jiffy is a shortening of jiffle or is it the other way round? Is jiffle a diminutive of jiff? Which is older?

Hal.— stands for Halliwell’s Dict. of Archaic and Provincial Words


jeffey

Lastly, I found yet another spelling variant in A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (…) Slang and its Analogues By John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, printed in London 1905

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Curiously, the authors establish its date three years before Francis Grose’s dictionary was published but, yet again, fail to explain its origins.

Which language or dialect does jiffy derive from? Was it originally a nickname? Was it really Cant for lightning? Will we ever know the truth?

Answer

Chiffy

Etymologicon Magnum, or Universal Etymological Dictionary” by Walter Whiter (1800) makes the claim that “chiffy“, as used in the term “in a chiffy” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “Caf“.

“A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language” by Joseph Bosworth (1832)
confirms the meaning of “Caf” as “quick, sharp, nimble, swift“.

Jiffin

This is my oldest source yet, this time for “jiffin“.

“The Fall of British Tyranny: or American Liberty Triumphant” by John Leacock

This was published in MDCCLXXVI, which by my reckoning is 1776.

Please to walk aft, brother soldiers, that’s the fittest berth for you, the Kidnapper’s in the state room, he’ll hoist his sheet-anchor presently, he’ll be up in a jiffin — as soon as he has made fast his end of his small rope athwart Jenny Bluegarter and Kate Common’s stern ports.”

Jiff/Jiffy

In 1791, Edward Nairne of Sandwich, Kent published “Poems, Miscellaneous and Humorous, with Explanatory Notes and Observations” in which the following lines appear:

At dinner-time, and bus’ness slack,

I stept to Joe’s, and got a snack

A pot of mildchee, and a whiff,

And off again in half a jiff !§

The author’s explanatory notes, below, are expansive and delightful:

§ Jiff or jiffy, a jocular expression, and means a short space of
time. Innumerable are the expressions (particularly amongst sailors)
to shew what expedition may be, or is intended to be made, in the
doing of any act ; the progress of these is curious. I perfectly recol-
lect, when a school-boy, an expression of this kind — ‘ Before you
can say Jack Robinson’ — was very common. After the intervention
of various others, that of — ‘ As soon as you can say peas’ — came
into vogue ; but some persons, who were not over precipitate, very
properly qualified it by adding — ‘ and boil them.’ Next, the ele-
gant expression of doing any thing ‘ In a pig’s whisper’ came into
fashion! (What particular period of time this contains, I am at a loss
to determine, having never yet had the pleasure of hearing these melodious animals exhibit in this way ! — I have frequently, and with
admiration, observed them make transitions from one note to another,
and which usually has a most charming effect.) — The ingenuity of
modern times has, I believe, brought this business to its ne plus ultra,
its greatest perfection ! and people can now, according to their own
declarations, do things ‘ In less than no time ‘ This beats Joshua’s
making the sun stand still -, for that only protracted daylight, and
puzzled the clocksmiths ! but this has all the advantages of time,
without the inconvenience of waiting for it.

Attribution
Source : Link , Question Author : Mari-Lou A , Answer Author : Phil M Jones

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